Before passengers climb aboard the suborbital space plane SpaceShipTwo, the space tourism firm will send at least two powered test spaceflights aloft from New Mexico's Spaceport America, where the company moved earlier this year. Virgin performed two glide tests at the spaceport this spring, after the novel coronavirus pandemic erupted.
In its quarterly results call held on Monday (Aug. 3), the space tourism firm stated that the pandemic "slowed the company's pace" for the first operational spaceflight due to new health and safety procedures, in line with guidelines from local and state health officials as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The plan for now, Virgin said, is for the first powered spaceflight to leave Spaceport America this fall. That mission will only carry two test pilots, no passengers. If that outing goes well, Virgin will initiate a second spaceflight from Spaceport America, carrying two test pilots and four mission specialists to evaluate the performance of the customer cabin.
Virgin added that safety "remains the central focus" and the flight schedule may change if something unanticipated happens. That said, founder Richard Branson is expected to take his first spaceflight in the first quarter of 2021, marking the soft launch of operational flights for Virgin.
"Our preparations for commercial service are well underway under the leadership of our new CEO, Michael Colglazier," George Whitesides, Virgin's chief space officer and former CEO, said in the same quarterly results statement.